Frances, you were part of the short-lived Peace Corps experiment to recruit families to be Peace Corps Volunteers. When you joined how big was your family?
My husband Paul and I had four children in 1971. Daniel had just turned 11. Our daughter Nancy was 8; Peter turned 6 right after we were in, and Matthew turned 3 that August.
With a large family, why did you join?
We happened to be in between jobs deciding what we should do next when we found out about the Peace Corps taking families. The Peace Corps was something we were always interested in and decide why not. It sounded like the perfect thing for us at the time and we felt up to the challenge of contributing in this manner. We also felt it would be a wonderful educational experience for our family.
Where were you sent as Volunteer?
We went to the Philippines. I was a non-matrix-spouse Volunteer. It was an agricultural swine program.
We lived in Baguio City for about a year where I helped to establish a nursery and kindergarten at Good Shepherd Convent, and was the teacher. I worked with teacher-aides and gave a series of one-week lectures on preschool education, needing to take into consideration what would and wouldn’t work in their culture.
Where were you from in the States?
I was born in Lenoir, North Carolina but spent the major part of my growing up years in Rifton, New York, then I moved to Virginia. As an adult I lived in Ames, Iowa for my first year of college with my new husband Paul. We moved back to Virginia where we went to college and after graduation we farmed for 8 years. We also lived in Plymouth, Vermont, The British Virgin Islands, back again to Virginia and the Peace Corps. In all of this we were involved in farming and education.
All that time I was a part-time student at Iowa State University, Virginia Polytechnic State University, Blacksburg, and Radford College, Radford, VA.
What was the reasoning behind joining the Peace Corps, besides just being between jobs?
This is an interesting question for me because as I look back I can give reasons now as to why I joined and what it meant to me that have expanded over the years since I went through the experience and have continued to grow and mature.
I did some digging and found a little piece I wrote on the eve of leaving for the Peace Corps as to why we joined. (see right)
From your Peace Corps tour, tell a story that has stayed with you all of these years.
My work with the Good Shepherd Convent brings back the most memories related to my work as a Volunteer. I will never forget standing in the doorway of a small, single-room building with Sister Helena. It was completely empty, no running water or bathroom and no windows. There was a large blackboard on the wall. I was to establish a preschool classroom in this space. Sister Helena, forever the optimist, told me not to worry, to just let her know what I needed. This was going to be interesting and I felt up to the challenge and was excited by it. I made my requests starting with furniture, and with Paul’s help two large tables were built and hinged to the wall so they could be folded up against the wall when not in use so there would be room to do other activities. Supplies were simple and very basic and my creativity and imagination had to work overtime.
Then there were the children. They spoke different dialects and I only spoke English. Some of them couldn’t even understand each other much less me. When I talked with Sister Helena about this she was unconcerned. She just looked at me and told me not to worry the children and I would work it out. And we did. Lots of hand signals, drawing on the blackboard and developing some of our own words. What a riot. I remember going on a walk one day and as they went running down a hill getting way ahead of me I called, “Para, Para” which meant stop. They suddenly stopped and looked at me and then started laughing. It didn’t mean stop in their language. I can’t remember what it meant to them, but we developed it as “stop” for them and me.
When did you decide to write Through the Eyes of My Children: The Adventures of a Peace Corps Volunteer Family?
Ever since I can remember I have been writing, and I knew that some day I wanted to write a book. I knew it would be for children and I had ideas based around farming and children and animals. And I knew it would probably be non-fiction. I had no idea when or if I could really pull it off. It was always just up there in my head.
The seed for this book was planted in my mind in 2005 when I started sorting through the letters I had written home while I was a PCV. Paul and my parents had all of our letters and I had over 100 letters that gave a detailed narration of our experience as a PCV family. I didn’t leave anything out. It was all there. The good times, the hard times, the disappointments, the challenges, the struggles, the rewards. There was also a great deal about the political climate within which we worked - biggest thing being martial law. The letters also included an overwhelming amount of detail of how our children dealt with living in another country alongside mostly the poor.
In the Fall of 2006 I decided to take a writing course and it didn’t take long for the professor and me to come upon the idea of doing a book on the Peace Corps written through the eyes of the children. There were a couple of reasons for this. As a writer I was definitely young-people oriented and while many books had been written about the PCV experience, none had been written for children. And lastly it was a part of PCV history that extremely few people — even within the PC family — knew that for a few years families could be PCV’s. I finished the course in 2008, but hardly the book. I was encouraged by my professor to keep on writing and working towards getting it published.
I wrote this book because I wanted young people to know about and learn something about PCVs. It is a part of our history and of course, thank goodness, the Peace Corps is still with us today. Yet I feel few realize its importance or even give it much thought. I believe in citizens serving their country at some point in their lives. I think that is something that may be missing a little in our country.
Most often when we think about serving we think about the military. For some people like in my family the military is not really an option for us - but the Peace Corps is. I want the Peace Corps to be right up there with the military as a way to serve ones country. I want it to be just as important and I would like the Peace Corps to be able to have the same respect and honor that the military has. When did we last publicly honor a PCV and recognize his/her contribution to our country and the world? When has a PCV been on TV?
I want young people to think about the Peace Corps so when they become adults and are thinking about how they can help or serve their country they will know about the Peace Corps as an option right along with the military as a way to serve abroad.
How would you describe your book to someone?
This book about being a Peace Corps Volunteer told in the voices of the children, making it a unique Peace Corps story. They tell about living in a third world country. How they coped and adjusted to another culture, made friends and did without. What it was like being the different one, eating dog meat and not having good water. Learning about the way they were all the same while also different. The experience of living within, and identifying with another culture would help prepare them to become citizens of the world.
What Peace Corps writers have you read and what book(s) would you recommend to others?
I plead guilty for not keeping up with Peace Corps writers books. Reading about the Peace Corps and the Volunteers needs to be encouraged among those who know nothing about the Peace Corps or what it is like to be a Volunteer in the hopes it might lead them to give it a try. I only recently realized some RPCVs were writing children’s stories — not about the Peace Corps experience but about life in the third world— and I hope to have a go with some of them since I love children’s books.